Heavenly Blues: The Soul of King Curtis

Curtis Montgomery was born in Fort Worth, Texas on 7th February 1934. Along with his sister Josephine, he was adopted by William and Josie Ousley, taking their family name. Experiencing a comfortable and stable childhood in the affluent Texan city of Mansfield, his parents encouraged their son when he began learning to play the saxophone at the age of 12, in the hope of emulating his idols Lester Young and Louis Jordan.

As a member of his high school band, it became obvious to all who heard him, that Ousley’s talent was something special. Rejecting the numerous college scholarships he was offered, Ousley instead joined the Lionel Hampton Band. A renowned musician and bandleader, Hampton had been involved with some of the most respected names in the industry, such as Louis Armstrong, Benny Goodman and Charlie Parker.

Ousley moved to New York, the home of the American Jazz scene in 1952. He found work as a session musician, and recorded with artists like Nat Adderley, Andy Williams, Bobby Darin, Sam Cooke, Buddy Holly and The Coasters, contributing to their 1958 hit, Yakety Yak. For the next decade, having taken the moniker King Curtis, he continued to work with major stars, as well as making an impressive number of his own recordings after signing with Capitol Records; notable albums from that period were Have Tenor Sax, Will Blow (1959), The New Scene of King Curtis (1960), Trouble In Mind (1962) and Soul Serenade (1964).

Above: King Curtis – Soul Serenade (1964)

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The Whirl Of Life: Vernon Castle’s Walk

At the dawn of the Jazz Age, the birth of recorded sound allowed for the growth of exciting new musical genres, and these modern tunes required fresh ways to move to them. To many who filled ballrooms and dance halls across America in the years before the Great War, no dancer captured the public’s imagination more than Vernon Castle. Alongside his ravishing wife Irene, he caused a rhythmic revolution, and, as another major conflict loomed in 1939, their compelling story inspired the hit musical, The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle, starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.

Above: Scene from The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle (1939)

Born William Vernon Blyth on 2nd May 1887, as the son of a publican he grew up in Norwich and London, before moving to New York with his actress sister Coralie Blythe (having changed her name from Caroline) and his brother-in-law, Lawrence Grossmith, a music hall performer and the son of the Victorian comedian, actor and composer George Grossmith.

Accepting minor roles under the wing of the legendary vaudeville star and manager Lew Fields, he became professionally known as Vernon Castle, and in 1910, he met Irene Foote, a 17 year-old amateur actress, at the New Rochelle Rowing Club. Though Irene later claimed, ‘I could tell by looking at him that he was not my cup of tea,’ her feelings rapidly changed and within weeks, ‘I realized that he was as much in love with me as I was with him.’ They were married a year later, to the dismay of her father, an eminent New York physician whose objections stemmed from his belief that ‘actors never had any money.’ Spending their honeymoon in England, Irene considered the local women to be ‘dowdily dressed,’ and complained of how she found London ‘inferior to New York.’ Continue reading

The Last Battle: Stanley G. Weinbaum’s Odyssey

Stanley Grauman Weinbaum was born on 4th April 1902, in Louisville Kentucky. In spite of his family’s strong show business connections – he was a relative of both Sid Grauman, the creator of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, and the actor George Jessel – Weinbaum’s only real ambition was to become a writer. At the age of 15, he penned The Last Battle, a piece for his school magazine that predicted the end of the First World War in 2001.

In 1920, Weinbaum enrolled at the University of Wisconsin to study chemical engineering, but eventually decided to change his major to English Literature, after which he began publishing some of his poetry in The Wisconsin Literary Journal and befriended Horace Gregory, who would become a distinguished poet himself, and who remembered Weinbaum in his autobiography, as having ‘a number of ruling passions’ which included ‘playing his guitar as though it were a lute, alliteration in writing verse and chanting it, mathematics, Turkish coffee, the invention of scientific gadgets, and cigarettes. In his speech, he had great purity of diction, and a love of entertaining everyone around him – this last with an artless air that seldom failed to please.’

Weinbaum never received his degree as he was caught pretending to be another student and sitting their exam for a bet. Consequently, he took a number of unfulfilling jobs but continued to write in his spare time. The Lady Dances was his first novel, and in 1933, was purchased by the King Features Syndicate, who then serialised it in a number of national newspapers, under the pseudonym Marge Stanley. However, Weinbaum’s attempts at publishing some of his other romantic stories fell flat, prompting him to return to his first literary love, science fiction. Continue reading

More Than A Woman: The Ascension Of Aaliyah

Aaliyah Dana Haughton was born in Brooklyn on 16th January 1979. Of both Hebrew and Arabic origin, her name literally translated as ‘highest, most exalted one,’ or ‘to ascend’ and its meaning was a source of motivation and inspiration for Aaliyah throughout her life. With a mother who had forfeited her dreams of becoming a singer for her family, and as the niece by marriage, of soul legend Gladys Knight, Aaliyah had a natural proclivity for music as well as important industry connections. Encouraged by her parents, Aaliyah was given singing lessons from an early age, even before the Haughtons moved from Brooklyn to Detroit when she was 5.

Still only 9 years old, Aaliyah and her extraordinary voice were unleashed upon the American public with her appearance on Star Search, where she gave her own unique rendition of the 1937 Rodgers and Hart standard, My Funny Valentine. She failed to win on the show, but it granted Aaliyah national exposure, and further cemented her determination to become an entertainer. Gladys Knight’s then husband, Aaliyah’s uncle Barry Hankerson, agreed to manage her and in 1991, she performed a week long stint with her famous aunt in Las Vegas, closing with a duet of Believe in Yourself, originally sung by Diana Ross in the 1978 film The Wiz.

Above: Aaliyah on Star Search (1989)

Hankerson founded Blackground Records in 1993, with Aaliyah as the label’s principal artist. At the same time, Hankerson started managing R. Kelly, a singer and songwriter from Chicago who had won the television talent contest Big Break in 1989. R. Kelly had put out his first album, Born Into The 90s (as R. Kelly & Public Announcement) in 1992, and several hits ensued, including She’s Got That Vibe, Honey Love and Dedicated. Continue reading